CHIAVARI, ITALY - One of Italy’s most famous salads is Sicilian caponata, a sweet and sour mix of aubergines, aka eggplant, celery, tomatoes and onions. And like much of Sicily’s cuisine it was brought to the island by the Arabs, or in this case the main ingredient, eggplant, was brought to Sicily by the Arabs. The Arabs have contributed much to the enrichment of Sicilian food and the Sicilian language as well, and continue to do so.
You see it not just in the ingredients such as lemons and oranges, rice and saffron and sweet and sour combinations like caponata, but in the way the Sicilians combine fruit, meat, nuts and vegetables. Sugar and almonds, and the techniques to make sweets using those ingredients, like confetti, were also brought to the island by the Arabs, along with sorbetto.
From the very beginning eggplant had a difficult time being accepted in Europe. In fact in Italy it was called mela insana, or crazy apple, which later linguistically morphed into melanzane in Italian. People really thought they would become insane if they ate it, so they didn’t. Part of the problem was that eggplant is not a vegetable you can eat raw like carrots or celery, it doesn’t taste good and it really is slightly toxic, so it is easy to understand their reluctance to pick up a fork and dig in.
|An Eggplant Plant|
One interesting bit of trivia I found was that during the Second World War, the leaves of the eggplant plant were dried in the sun and used as a substitute for tobacco, and cigarettes and cigars were actually manufactured using the eggplant leaves.
A few years ago I made caponata for a party organized for and by a group of New Yorkers in Milan. At one point I remember asking one of the Italian guests, a Sicilian, what she thought of the caponata, not letting on that I had made it. She said, quite bluntly, that it was ‘schifo’ – in other words pretty bad. Needless to say I was crushed as most of the time my food is pretty good. I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong.
It turns out I hadn’t really done anything wrong, it was a decent caponata, it just wasn’t the type of caponata she was used to. I had added peppers to the mix and classic Sicilian caponata doesn’t call for peppers. Even the tomatoes are a relatively new addition, well, new in Italian time which could mean anything from yesterday to 500 years ago. It’s a good thing I didn’t make Sicilian "Baroque" caponata which calls for a sprinkle of powdered unsweetened Modica Chocolate before serving. I wonder what kind of reaction that would have gotten from her.
Today’s recipe was taken from an old recipe book by Arabella Boxer titled Mediterranean Cookbook. I chose Ms. Boxer’s recipe because it has the same ingredients and amounts as Italian caponata recipes with the added benefit of European and American measurements. However, because the Italians do things a little differently than Ms. Boxer, I’ve also included caponata making suggestions culled from several Italian cooking sites that you might find interesting.
1lb/450 g eggplant
1 medium onion
Approx ¼ pint or 150 ml extra virgin olive oil
2 stalks of celery (without leaves)
½ lb/225 g tomatoes
12 green olives (no pits)
1 tablespoon of capers (well rinsed of salt or brine)
1 tablespoon of sugar
2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar
Cut the unpeeled eggplants in cubes about ½ inch/1 cm square. Lay them in layers in a colander and sprinkle each layer with salt. Cover with a plate and place in a bowl large enough to collect the bitter juice from the eggplants, and weigh the plate down with something heavy, like a 2.5kilo/5lb bag of sugar or beans and let sit for at least 1 hour.
Chop the onion and cook it gently in 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté’ pan. Dice the celery and add to the onions when it starts to color. Let them cook together for a few minutes. Then skin and rough chop the tomatoes and add them to the celery and onion mix. Cook gently until it thickens, then add the olives, capers, sugar and vinegar. Do not add salt.
In another frying pan, heat the remaining oil. Rinse and dry the eggplant cubes and sauté them. When they are brown and soft, lift them out with a slotted spoon and mix them in with the other vegetables. Pour the caponata into a shallow dish and allow to cool to room temperature. Do not chill. Serves 4 or 5 as a side dish.
Keep caponata in a covered dish in the refrigerator, and bring to room temperature before serving.
Here are some of the suggestions given by the Italians. You’ll notice they also add pine nuts which gives the dish a nice texture.
1. Boil celery chunks for a couple of minutes, drain them, dry them with paper towel, and cook them in a little olive oil. When they are cooked put them in a colander over a bowl to allow the excess oil to drain off.
2. Fry onion in olive oil then add capers, pine nuts and olives.
3. Add fresh tomatoes, cut into pieces more or less the same size as the celery
4. Cook over medium high heat for at least 20 minutes.
5. Rinse the eggplant cubes after they have drained for an hour, and dry thoroughly with paper towels. Fry them in olive oil in a separate pan. When the eggplant cubes are cooked, and browned, add them to the onions.
6. Add the cooked celery chunks
7. Then add the sugar, which has been dissolved in ½ glass of vinegar, and cook it with the vegetables, stirring often, until the vinegar smell is less strong. Let sit for at least one hour. Serve at room temperature.